A lot of people will disagree with this. In fact, a lot of people who have and have not been to majors of any kind will probably take issue with it being called a major. But it is. (If that’s you, you’ll have to get over it.)
I’ve been to enough of them to know. And I’m here to tell you The Players has all the ingredients of a major. In fact it has more than the rest of them have, although like golf courses, each major is different. Here’s what sets The Players apart.
1. It has the best, strongest, toughest field every year.
If you arm isn’t in a sling, you are there. Second place in field strength goes to the PGA Championship which has 20 club professionals, and all the rest earn their way in with play. The US Open and the British Open have qualifiers, a bunch of qualifiers, so they tie for third, behind the PGA Championship. The Masters, beautiful rite of spring that it is, has a short field, typically less than 100. You don’t have to beat as many people there. They have past champs, the occasional golfer from another country that none of us have heard of and top 50 in the world and some amateurs. It’s not like beating 156 other guys who are ready to walk over you with softspikes. Those who win The Players beat the best the best of the best.
2. It has a course that tests everything you have.
Sure the other majors have tough courses. With the recently invented contest where four people play the US Open course before the tournament, it’s been proven that most of us would need a week to get around a major type course. We’d have to send someone back to the clubhouse a couple times for extra golf balls and a sack lunch. Possibly a machete and a GPS locator. And a calculator to add up our “others.” These are the hardest courses all year, each year.
The TPC Sawgrass is particularly infuriating because every shot counts. It’s not a drive into a 20-yard wide fairway, like the US Open. It’s not a putting contest, which is what many call The Masters. It’s an every shot has to be in the right place golf course. People are mind whipped after they play it for the first time. Forget masterpiece. It’s a Pete Dye original monster-piece. It’s your worst golf nightmare.
3. It has the most exciting finish in golf.
It is really hard to top the excitement of the 16th , 17th and 18th at The Players. Whether it’s the eagle, birdie, par finish by Fred Couples or the Tiger Woods better than most putt at the 17th or Davis Love III off the pine straw at the 16th on the way to a final round 64, on the last three holes anything can happen. They allow an unlimited score, from catastrophe to triumph. Plus on the 16th and 17th , you have to watch your competitor. It’s impossible not to. By comparison, the middle of the back nine at The Masters is fabulous. After the 16th , well, they had to get to the clubhouse somehow. Did you know that in the early days, they played the back nine as the front nine there? Whoever made the decision to flip them was a genius and probably made the tournament historic. Can you imagine the third through seventh causing any serious excitement compared to the 12th through the 16th at Augusta National? The 17th and 18th are difficult but not dangerous. Nerves make them tough.
4. TPC Sawgrass doesn’t favor any golfer except the guy who can hit all the shots.
Long hitters have won at TPC Sawgrass: Phil Mickelson . Sergio Garcis. Davis Love III. Fred Couples. Greg Norman. Tiger Woods. Medium hitters have won at TPC Sawgrass. Fred Funk. Calvin Peete. Tom Kite. Justin Leonard.
It requires four excellent rounds. If you are sloppy, you are in the water or in a bunker or the alligator has you by the ankle.
The greens are not as severe as Augusta National, not by a long shot, but the fourth will drive you nuts. From the top right, you can putt into the water hazard, even on a week when the tournament isn’t being played. The 13th is a killer when the greens are baked out. There is that ridge in the11th. But they are puttable.
5. It has memorable holes, ones that have brought heartache and elation.
The infamous hole at The Players is the 17th , which everyone says is a gimmick. Well, it might be, but it’s one of the most memorable gimmicks to accidentally have been designed.
It didn’t start out as an island. But Pete Dye was digging and he needed sand, and there happened to be a great deal of sand where the 17th hole was located. He talked to his wife Alice on the phone during construction. (Alice is a multi-state amateur winner and USGA title holder. You want her as your partner.) She suggested keep digging and make it like the island green at another club they both knew. So it was really created because Pete needed the sand someplace else on the course, but it’s now internationally infamous.
Sergio Garcia won a playoff with Paul Goydos on the 17th when Sergio hit the green and Paul didn’t.
Fred Couples made a three with a ball in the water one year. He was a bunch over at the time, so it didn’t matter in terms of a victory, but the crowd sure loved it.
It’s where Sean O’Hair plunked one into the alligator’s mouth trying to catch Phil Mickelson.
A lot of exciting things and a lot of terrible things have happened there. Fred Funk said he made an 11 with a five-putt on 17h, playing behind Tiger Woods after the better than most putt. Now was it the hole or was it Tiger Woods that caused the 11? Probably a little of both.
So why not five majors?
A little history. Those of you who already know this are excused.
The modern Grand Slam was created on the way to the 1960 British Open by the late sportswriter and raconteur Bob Drum talking to Arnold Palmer during the flight across the pond.
Palmer had already won The Masters and The US Open that year. He asked Drum what it would be called if he, Palmer, won The British Open and the PGA. Drum replied that it would be the equivalent of Bobby Jones’ Grand Slam. So Palmer said, that’s what he would do, win the Grand Slam.
Of course, he didn’t. He lost the 1960 British Open to Kel Nagel and he never did win a PGA Championship. But a new idea was born.
Before, then two of today’s “ majors” weren’t majors. Before then, the Grand Slam was the US and British Amateurs and the US and British Opens, which Bobby Jones won in 1930. And let’s face it, grand slam was stolen from baseball.
As times change to reflect new realities, it’s time to make way for the tournament with the best field, the most exciting finish and one of the more challenging golf courses on the planet. The Players is a major. We have five. Like five star or five diamond ratings. It’s better than most, and possibly the best of all.